Child Custody Arrangements: Their Characteristics and Outcomes

2004-FCY-3E

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This literature review describes what is known about the factors that affect child custody arrangements, the characteristics of different custody arrangements and their effects on children and their parents. The emphasis is on shared custody.

A variety of social and environmental factors, as well as the personal characteristics of parents, are associated with the type of custody arrangement, including family law legislation, family composition, such as the age and sex of the children, the socio-economic status of the family, and the amount of parental co-operation. The effects of changes in family law legislation on actual custody arrangements are uncertain, although there is evidence that the number of shared custody arrangements goes up, while the number of sole maternal custody goes down after statutory changes that permit or encourage joint physical custody. Family composition affects the type of custody arrangement parents choose, with boys more likely to be in shared and sole paternal custody situations. Parents with more education and higher incomes are disproportionately involved in shared custody arrangements. Parents who co-operate and those who are more child-oriented are more likely to select shared over sole custody. There is anecdotal evidence that some parents seek shared custody to reduce their child support obligations or reject it to increase these obligations, but the author was unable to locate any empirical evidence on this issue.

Compared to sole maternal custody, sole paternal and shared custody arrangements appear to be vulnerable to change over time, typically to maternal custody with visitation by the father. The reasons for the change and the effects on the children are not known. Since much of the movement to different living arrangements involves older children (teenagers), the children themselves may have requested the change.

The research literature is remarkably silent on the logistics of different custody arrangements, such as scheduling, decision making, the sharing of child rearing tasks and expenditures.

Some inferences on the costs associated with different custody arrangements can be made from an Australian survey of fathers who had frequent visitation with their children. As the number of overnight visits increased, so did the number of items purchased by the father. The income of the father was not associated with the number of items purchased. A second study from Australia, which used the same survey as its data source, found that the cost of raising a child who spends 30 percent of the year with the non-custodial parent is from 46 to 59 percent higher than the cost of raising the child in an intact household, with the variation depending on the parents' standard of living. Costs related to household infrastructure (such as a bedroom, furniture and toys) and transportation were the primary reasons for the higher cost. There was little difference in the estimated costs for different frequencies of contact visits (i.e. 15, 20 and 30 percent of the year). Unfortunately, the extent to which these findings can be generalized to all non-resident parents, especially in Canada, is not yet known.

The social science evidence on living arrangements after separation and divorce is fairly clear on one important point: child outcomes in terms of social and psychological development do not differ by the type of custody arrangement as long as parental conflict is not high. The following conclusions concerning the advantages and disadvantages of shared custody are preliminary and need to be replicated in future research.

The advantages of shared custody:

  • Shared custody avoids the phenomenon of "Sunday dads." Fathers who have shared custody tend to spend more time with their children, and father involvement in parenting may be maximized in shared custody arrangements.
  • Shared custody results in a more equal division of parenting time and effort. In effect, shared custody gives each parent a respite from child rearing. This may be especially important when—as is the case in most families—both parents work full-time.
  • Parents' satisfaction may be higher in a shared custody arrangement compared to other types of arrangements.
  • Shared custody may permit greater opportunity for parents to resolve financial issues. As well, each parent may have a greater understanding of the costs of child rearing.

The disadvantages of shared custody:

  • Shared custody increases the overall costs of child rearing. However, the cost difference between shared custody—the children spending 40 percent or more of time with each parent, as set out in the Federal Child Support Guidelines—and sole custody with frequent contact by the non-resident parent has not been the subject of Canadian research.
  • Parents in conflict are less likely to be able to cope with the demands of shared custody (in particular, commentators urge against shared custody when there are indications of domestic violence). Parents in shared custody arrangements are usually advised to establish schedules in order to provide the children with a sense of stability. At the same time, parents with a shared custody arrangement must be prepared to discuss issues of child rearing, such as discipline and limit setting, in more detail than when one parent has physical custody. Such co-operative parenting is less likely when there is ongoing hostility between the former spouses. When there is parental conflict that is obvious to the children, the children can experience loyalty conflicts and feel "caught," which in turn can lead to emotional and behavioural problems. There is no evidence that shared custody improves the relationship between the parents.
  • There are some indications that shared custody is less stable than most other arrangements. Changes in living arrangements may be disruptive to the children.

In the future, research on custody arrangements should emphasize longitudinal designs using random samples of separating parents. A prime example of this approach is the National Longitudinal Study of Children and Youth conducted by Statistics Canada, which is providing valuable data on how parents and children adjust to separation and divorce. Other research on "shared parenting" (i.e. both shared custody and sole custody with frequent contact between the children and the non-resident parent) should address questions such as what family characteristics are associated with "successful" custody arrangements.

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